I need to hire a gondola in Venice
September 13, 2016 10:39 AM   Subscribe

Mrs. Jabo has always wanted to see Venice. And now that we are going, I want to hire a gondola on our 30th wedding anniversary.

I figure the best way to hire a gondola is to go through our hotel. Any advice on finding the perfect gondola experience? Any memorable canals to float through? I would like to avoid the usual tourist traps, gondola logjams and substandard gondoliers. We will be there in mid-October.
posted by jabo to Travel & Transportation around Venice, Italy (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You could do it through your hotel but then you have no choice as to the boat or the guy. Just walk around and pick the prettiest one you see (they're all basically the same but some have slightly prettier decorations) and hop in. Their prices are set for an hour or half hour, discounts for daytime; you probably want sunset. The gondoliers are graduates of a fairly exclusive school and the trade is regulated, I don't think you can get a "substandard gondolier." If you want him to sing, tell him.

Gondola rides are by definition "the usual tourist traps", they are exclusively a (rich) tourist thing; but they are lovely and atmospheric, so enjoy and don't worry about whether they're for tourists.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:53 AM on September 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'll second fingersandtoes that this is not a "book in advance" thing but a "pick a guy you like and go for it" kind of thing.

Gondolas in Venice are a tourist trap. No locals travel this way, and even savvy travelers generally opt to walk or maybe take a vaporetto. You should just own that you want to do this despite the fact that it's a cheeseball tourist thing to do.
posted by Sara C. at 11:08 AM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I visited Venice with friends who had a really good gondola experience. They picked a guy who seemed friendly and asked him to take them on some less-crowded canals, which he did. Be sure to take along a bottle of wine and some glasses.
posted by neushoorn at 11:20 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not even sure your hotel could do this for you, unless the desk clerk simply happens to Know A Guy, because getting some kind of advance scheduled arrangement would be unusual. Many of the gondoliers at the approved embarkation points have kind of a patter, you might negotiate with one or two and find one who speaks pretty good English. The worst that can really happen is you get a surly gondolier, which mostly means a guy who's going to do the same thing as all the other guys, but silently.

It's like the tourboats on the Seine or Thames (or the perfectly nice museums and beauty spots in your town) - locals don't really use them unless they are entertaining visitors but it's totally a thing they'd take a visitor to do. It's definitely in my Top 5 Tourist Things I Did That Were Totally Worth It - Venice from water level is pretty amazing and there are very few other options for seeing it at low speed.

I'm not sure the gondoliers have complete free reign to go wherever they want (given that some of these areas are very residential), and there are various reasons that you and they might want to avoid going too off-the-beaten-path (given that they and you are carrying cash). It's okay to go along with what's traditionally done - as long as the weather is nice, it's pretty pleasant even on a busy night.

Do bring wine and snacks. Do NOT forget a bottle opener, because while I suspect most gondoliers are prepared like ours was, it does make you feel like a real rookie.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:44 PM on September 13, 2016

I don't think you can get a "substandard gondolier."

Absolutely not true. I got one who probably overcharged me, which I didn't know at the time, sang terribly and talked on his phone when he wasn't singing. Venice was beautiful, but this was absolutely a substandard experience.

My advice would be to talk to a number of gondoliers, ask about prices and pick the one you like best.
posted by cnc at 1:01 PM on September 13, 2016

Water taxis are nice too, surprisingly, and they can go where you want, for as long as you want, unlike gondoliers, who generally go on a fixed route which doesn't take you down cute little canals that intrigue you as you go by. Maybe try both?
posted by Capri at 5:36 PM on September 13, 2016

I agree with the others - just walk around and find the friendliest gondolier after a quick chat.

Two things:

1) I forget how much it cost but I remember almost having a heart attack after asking a few gondoliers what the price was. We made a game time decision and shared a gondola (same price!) with another, equally shocked couple. It was actually one of the more memorable experiences (the heart attack, the haggling, the partnering up, the getting a good deal!).

2) Confirm the route and amount of time you expect to be in the gondola before you set off. If there's an option to have a shorter ride for cheaper - do it. You don't need to be in the boat for an hour.

3) If you care about the gondolier smoking during the ride, be sure to specify. Our guy was smoking the entire time and I was kind of offended.

Pro Tip (unrelated to gondola rides) - don't miss Murano while you're in Venice. Fun boat ride. Be sure to catch the glass blowing demonstration... all really cool.
posted by shew at 9:44 PM on September 13, 2016

So, we visited Venice last December, and the gondoliers all seemed to be licensed by the city and charge a flat rate of €80/ half hour, cash only. I'm confused about all the stories of haggling. (Our guy was happy to stop by an ATM---with the gondola---so we could get cash.)

We just picked a guy at random. There are lots. It was surprisingly fun (although super spendy). (I didn't know I was supposed to---or allowed to---bring wine, but then we did it partly for the kids.)

Also, if you go to Plaza San Marco (or maybe it was the train station) in the evening, you should totally buy some of the light-up LED toys from the guys trying to sell you stuff. They were 3/€5 and worth it, in terms of entertainment value at least. (They're LEDs on sticks with helicopter-rotor things, that you shoot into the air with rubber bands and then they spiral down slowly making pretty light.)

(For your routine travel, of course, plan on walking or taking the vaporetto.)
posted by leahwrenn at 11:52 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

In 2013 I stayed 4 nights in Venice. Didn't take a gondola but learned through observation. Before sunset = gondola jams at the pickup and dropoff points. Saw many frowny faced people waiting their turn to unload during the last few tens of yards of their ride. Kept seeing gondolas in the same canals always going in the same direction. I'd be surprised if there weren't fixed routes for each pickup point. On days with no cruise ships in port, best times in Venice are before and after the day trippers are present. No idea how early gondola rides start.

Semi-related to gondolas is being prepared for cruise ship hordes at the most popular tourist sites. The calendars on this site shows the total passenger capacity of ships due in port for each day. For example, in Venice this Oct., there could be 11,486 cruisers on the 1st, while on 10 days there will be zero.
posted by Homer42 at 4:05 AM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just returned from Venezia and had a great gondola ride.

As fingersandtoes pointed out, you probably won’t go through your hotel. I asked our inkeeper and she looked a bit befuddled. There are gondola stands around Venice that have a sign with prices and sometimes a green bench to sit and wait for the next boat. It was 80€ for a 30 minute daytime ride and 100€ for one at night.

The gondoliers are not big on reservations. We wanted to go at dusk but they all wanted us to go right then and there. We also wanted to ride around the smaller canals instead of out in the busy Grand Canal.

We walked around early on and found a couple gondoliers along the Rio di San Barnaba; near our hotel, who claimed that they would be closed at 4 pm so we should go right away. I told them no, we wanted to go at 6:30 and would find someone who was available then. We searched around some more but decided to just look again when the time came.

We went back to the Campo and the same two gondoliers were still there. There was a young one with a bluetooth phone in his ear and an older one who we picked. Thanks to Nueshoorn’s suggestion, we got a free bottle of wine from our hotel and opened before we left.

The ride was all around the local canals with a final leg along the Grand Canal. When we first got on board, our gondolier told me to sit on the right as you face the front because “that’s where the man sit, for balance”. The moon was out, the light was wonderful and the bells from a nearby church began ringing as we started out. The wine didn’t hurt either.

The gondolier was quiet for the most part (I don’t think many will sing which is fine by us) but did point out some landmarks like the gondola builder’s shop which looked like a Swiss chalet (gondola builders hail from the Northern Italian Alps). He was also quite good at steering; many times coming within millimeters of a nearby boat or bridge but never making contact. It was over too soon and we felt it was fine way to end our visit.

You had the best selection of gondolas near St. Marks square with a whole dock full of boats. That is also where the majority of the hoards of tourists are. There were some that had hired people to stand at the prow and sing opera. We saw some gondolas out in the Grand Canal getting pretty close to the vaporettos (big boat buses). You could also take a traghetto; which is a shuttle gondola with two oarsmen, from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. The cost for that is a measly .50€.

Definitely a tourist thing but one that is unique to Venice and if you get the right gondolier and route, you will have a memorable experience. Just remember to put the damn selfie stick down and enjoy the ride!
posted by jabo at 5:03 PM on October 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

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